Oblongs and Hemicycles: Ideology and the Design of Legislative Chambers

Posted on October 12th, 2017 by Paul Seaward

As part of our blog series on the Restoration and Renewal of the Palace of Westminster, Dr Paul Seaward considers the debate around different shape of legislative chambers.

There are two basic shapes to which most chambers of legislative assemblies conform. One is the oblong, as Churchill called it, a rectangular arrangement with the Speaker presiding at one of the ends. The other is what is often referred to as the hemicycle: a semi-circular space, with the presiding officer placed in the middle of the long, straight side of the shape. The classic model for the latter is the chamber of the French National Assembly, the Palais Bourbon. The classic model for the first is the chamber of the House of Commons at Westminster. Both are venerable and resonant spaces (though the chamber of the National Assembly is more than a century older than that of the Commons).

It’s often said that the shape of the Westminster chamber is at least a contributory factor in creating different types of politics. Winston Churchill’s famous 1943 remark – ‘ we shape our buildings and then our buildings shape us’ – introduced a knockabout speech in which he linked the oblong chamber to the distinctiveness of British politics. The fact that government and opposition were seated facing one another, rather than along a semi-circular spectrum, he felt, tightened party discipline and clarified party lines: ‘crossing the floor’ was much more difficult than sliding along a place or two in order to shift your allegiance. For a similar reason, the set-up, he argued, inhibited the creation of coalitions as was (for Churchill) all too common on the continent. And the Commons chamber was shaped for intense confrontations and drama, unlike the hemicycles, where attention was focused on a single speaker, addressing the chamber from a central platform, rather than the exchanges that took place at Westminster. The result was the tedious drone of those who liked the sound of their own voice.

The Chamber of Deputies in the Palais Bourbon, 1843

Churchill’s analysis has been followed ever since, by both those who celebrate and those who denigrate the Westminster style. But there’s much in it that is highly arguable. It’s obvious for a start that the strength of party discipline and the difficulty of forming coalitions at Westminster has a lot more to do with the electoral system and the barriers to entry for new parties than it does with interior design. And while there may be something to be said for the idea that the confrontational style of Prime Minister’s Questions and key debates is related to the small size of the chamber and the fact that government and opposition are ranged directly facing one another, Westminster-style chambers don’t have a monopoly on confrontation, and actual violence within the chamber has been (recently, at any rate) more frequently encountered in hemicycles than in oblongs.

Why, in fact, are there these two, dominant models? Neither seems particularly suitable for a deliberative chamber. In an oblong, the presiding officer sits at one end and may find it difficult to see or hear those at the other end of the chamber, and the principal politicians huddle around the Speaker’s chair. The hemicycle assumes that the person speaking will address the chamber from the centre, rather than his place, encouraging set speeches, rather than exchanges. A circular arrangement would be rather more natural and effective than either of them.

The Westminster chamber, as has so frequently been pointed out, is based on the arrangement of the chapel which it occupied after 1547. This was not unusual: very many, perhaps most, pre-modern deliberative assemblies took place in ecclesiastical buildings, which were simply bigger than most others. There seems to have been no particular attachment to it though; when the designer William Kent was asked to draw schemes for a new chamber as part of ambitious (but unrealised) plans for the Palace of Westminster in the 1730s his drawings showed four plans including elliptical and circular shapes. The Irish House of Commons, created in Dublin in the late 1720s was octagonal.

But when an alternative model of chamber was created in the 1790s for the revolutionary French National Assembly, and a few years later the revolted US Congress copied it quite closely, British politicians came to express much stronger views about the shape of their own. The French identified the hemicycle during the 1790s as ideal for a chamber because of the success of the theatre in the Ecole de Chirurgie in Paris, built around 20 years before on the model of a Greek or Roman amphitheatre. The attraction was perhaps as much the antique status of the model as its appropriateness for a chamber. But what it facilitated was, as many British politicians noted, the overblown rhetoric of politicians who were able to directly address not just their colleagues, but also a large public gallery behind the seating for deputies. The hemicycle in fact could have been designed to encourage an audience, rather than to encourage debate, and the British linked the French, and later, the American, chambers to a chaotic style of legislature where the public would often express their own views vocally and visibly, and where the Members spoke to them, literally over the heads of their colleagues.

For many conservative British politicians it confirmed their horror of the French revolution and their intense dislike of republicanism; radicals tended to take an opposite view, praising the acoustics, the sight lines, and the ease of movement around the new French and US chambers. If we now remember Churchill’s rejection of it and his claim that it embodied the British two-party system, it’s worth remembering that the hemicycle divided British politicians into conservative and radical camps well before he spoke.

Biography

Dr Paul Seaward is the Director of the History of Parliament Trust.

Notes: this article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the Crick Centre, or the Understanding Politics blog series. To write for the Understanding Politics blog series please contact crick@sheffield.ac.uk

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